WATERLOO — Nikole Hannah-Jones had some criteria in mind when looking for the space that would host her 1619 Freedom School.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and Waterloo native told a hometown crowd Sunday that it needed to be a beautiful, modern, comfortable and affirming facility.
She found that downtown in the second floor of the Masonic Temple building. It has been renovated and furnished to create a learning environment for the after-school program, which is moving into the space next month. An open house was held there Sunday.
“We had a vision that we would take the students that most people had given up on,” said Hannah-Jones. The program will serve about 30 Waterloo Community Schools’ fourth- and fifth-graders from low-income families who are behind on their literacy skills. Black history is woven into the curriculum’s reading and writing lessons.
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“Freedom schools were alternative academic schools in the south during the Civil Rights movement,” explained Sheritta Stokes, a district teacher who is the program’s director.
The year 1619 was when the first Black slaves came to North America. That year is a focus of the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” for which Hannah-Jones’ lead essay won the Pulitzer Prize. An expanded version of the magazine issue, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” has just been released as a book.
The idea of developing the program sprang from a discussion she had with Stokes, a childhood friend, after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Hannah-Jones said Black families in Waterloo Schools lack the level of resources available to many white families. So their children “already come in disadvantaged” when they start attending school. She noted that remote learning options a lot of students have participated in since the pandemic began have left some further behind their peers.
“I told Sheritta we should start a program,” recalled Hannah-Jones, much of whose work as a reporter has revolved around school segregation and equality in education.
“I understood that so much academic struggle is around literacy,” she said. Behavior problems “are really about kids who struggle to read. ... I decided to build something here because I know that our kids are not stupid.”
Stokes agreed and enlisted the help of three other Waterloo women to help lead the effort. They include Joy Briscoe, the talent and outreach specialist for Waterloo Schools; Lori Dale, adviser with the Educational Talent Search program at the University of Northern Iowa Center for Urban Education; and Sharina Sallis, community relations manager for CUNA Mutual Group.
“We did this on weekends and in our free time because we so believe this needed to happen,” Hannah-Jones said of the group’s work.
The program has an eight-unit curriculum created by professors at Georgetown University and the University of Missouri. She said students will develop their literacy skills as they learn the “great and majestic history” of Black people in America. “Every teacher in our school is certified,” she noted, of the eight current and retired teachers who will be working with students.
Space for the program in the Masonic Temple is divided into two main rooms. Both large and small group instruction will take place in a room with a variety of table and chair configurations. On the other side of the wall is a commons area that provides a place for children to go for activities like independent reading.
In the instructional room, a row of large tables is near the center, close to a mounted smart display screen. Along one wall is a series of small tables with partitions between them. On the other side of the room are a variety of comfortable couches and chairs, some laid out to face each other in a square.
Two smaller spaces are off the instructional room. One is a conference room and lending library, where two walls are lined with shelves full of books. The other is a kitchen where children will eat snacks when first arriving at the program.
Walls in the instructional room contain seven different murals on wood panels created by St. Louis artist Cbabi Bayoc. They include quotes and slogans, with depictions of Black children reading and writing. There are also historical images of African-Americans such as Linda Brown and Ruby Bridges, children involved in the integration of schools during the 1950s.
As desired, Sallis said, those murals as well as the comfortable seating areas and ample table work stations helped make the 1619 Freedom School a space that will be affirming for those learning there. “It conveyed the message of support, it conveyed the message of worthiness,” she said.
The program relies on private funding for its operations. To make a contribution, go online to 1619freedomschool.org/donate.